The Passionless Presidency?

A former White House speechwriter writes this about the President:

“Sixteen months into his Administration, there was a mystery to be explained about [him]: the contrast between the promise and popularity of his first months in office and the disappointment so widely felt later on. Part of this had to do with the inevitable end of the presidential honeymoon, with the unenviable circumstances [he] inherited, with the fickleness of the press. …His positions are correct, his values sound. Like Marshal Petain after the fall of France, he has offered his person to the nation. This is not an inconsiderable gift; his performance in office shows us why it’s not enough.

After two and a half years in [his] service, I fully believe him to be a good man. With his moral virtues and his intellectual skills, he is perhaps as admirable a human being as has ever held the job. He is probably smarter, in the College Board sense, than any other President in this century. He grasps issues quickly. He made me feel confident that…he would resolve technical questions lucidly, without distortions imposed by cant or imperfect comprehension.

He is a stable, personally confident man, whose quirks are few. Apart from occasional profanity, I saw him form no argument and strike no pose that would make him look a hypocrite if publicly revealed. …[He] is usually patient, less vindictive than the political norm, blessed with a sense of perspective about the chanciness of life and the transience of its glories and pursuits. I left his service feeling that if moral choices faced him, he would resolve them fairly, that when questions of life and death, of nuclear war and human destruction were laid upon his desk, he would act on them calmly, with self-knowledge, free of interior demons that might tempt him to act rashly or to prove at terrible cost that he was a man. One factor in our choice of Presidents is their soundness in the ultimate moments of decision, when the finger is poised over the button and the future of the race is stake. Of all contenders on the horizon, none would be saner or surer than [he] in those moments. In his ability to do justice case by case, he would be the ideal non-lawyer for the Supreme Court; if I had to choose one politician to sit at the Pearly Gates and pass judgment on my soul, [he] would be the one.

But if he has the gift of virtue, there are other gifts he lacks.

One is sophistication. It soon became clear, in ways I shall explain, that he and those closest to him  took office in profound ignorance of their jobs. They were ignorant of the possibilities and the most likely pitfalls. They fell prey to predictable dangers and squandered precious time.

The second is the ability to explain his goals and thereby to offer an object for loyalty larger than himself.

The third, and most important, is the passion to convert himself from a good man into an effective one, to learn how to do the job. [He] often seemed more concerned with taking the correct position than with learning how to turn that position into results. He seethed with frustration when plans were rejected, but felt no compulsion to do better next time. He did not devour history for its lessons, surround himself with people who could do what he could not, or learn from others that fire was painful before he plunged his hand into the flame.”

I worked for him enthusiastically and was proud to join his Administration, for I felt that he, alone among candidates, might look past the tired formulas of left and right and offer something new. These early hopes impose a special burden of explanation on people like me; before we find fault, we must explain why we thought things would be different. [He] had no experience in Washington or in foreign affairs; to blame him for that now seems somehow unfair. ..But there were two factors that made many of us ignore these paper limitations. One was [his] remarkable charm in face-to-face encounters. All politicians must be charming to some degree, but his performance on first intimate meeting was something special. His intelligence and magnetism soon banished thoughts of the limits of his background. When working at the White House, I often felt persuaded by [his] argument—and, even more, of his personal merit—while talking with him, although I knew, on reflection, that his argument was wrong. This was not simply the malleability of a young employee; I met very few people who, having sat and talked with [him] by themselves or in groups of two or three, did not come away feeling they had dealt with a formidable man.

The other factor was a subtler thing, though clearly visible in retrospect. I always thought [he] was awkward at the deliberate manipulation of symbols, but he was a genius at using a phrase, a gesture, a code word that his listeners assumed to be of greater significance than it was. He led call-and-response like a preacher in a black church; he talked with environmentalists about the sins of the Corps of Engineers; he told the American legion about his family’s [history]; and he told everyone in back-room meetings that, while he could not promise a single appointment to a single person, “I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the choices I make,” and “I think you’ll agree with what I do 95 percent of the time.” Espying these chunks in the water, each onlooker viewed them as tips of icebergs, indicating vast, hidden extensions below.

I realize now how people were led on by these hints… .; I was led on myself by the hope that [he] might make sense of the swirl of liberal and conservative sentiment then muddying the political orthodoxy… I do not particularly admire people who can say, as Jack Valenti did in his silly book A Very Human President, that “working on the White House staff is the ultimate seduction,” but I came to think that emotion of that sort might be a necessary ingredient for getting the job done. There was so little of that glimmer and drive in this White House that I began to realize that the absence of passion was as serious a weakness as the lack of sophistication.

I started to wonder about the difference between a good man and an inspiring one; about why [this President], who would surely outshine most other leaders in the judgment of the Lord, had such trouble generating excitement, not only in the nation but even among the members of his own staff. One explanation is that [he] has not given us an idea to follow. The central idea of [this] Administration is [the President] himself, his own mixture of traits, since the only thing that finally gives coherence to the items of his creed is that he happens to believe them all.”

To many of you – particularly those who most strongly supported President Obama during the 2008 campaign – these observations by the White House speech writer likely ring true.  Except this is not a description of Obama – it is of President Jimmy Carter.  The excerpt is from the first part of two-part 1979 Atlantic Monthly article, written by Carter’s former speechwriter James Fallows, titled “The Passionless Presidency.”  (This article is well worth reading in full.) Fallows’ assessment caused no little stir among the punditocracy and within the White House itself.  Indeed, the media fallout led to an exchange of letters between Fallows and Carter’s chief of staff Hamilton Jordan (although I can’t be sure from the archives whether Jordan ever sent his response) – an exchange prompted in part by a column by New York Times journalist Scotty Reston alleging that Fallows, in writing his critique, had broken a promise to Carter not to criticize the President.  In his letter to Jordan, Fallows defends his action, saying he was writing as a journalist. Jordan, while acknowledging his friendship with Fallows, points out that the article “had hurt the President among thoughtful people in this city and country.”

I was reminded of Fallows’ article when I ran across his exchange with Jordan during my recent time rummaging through archives at the Carter Library.  As you can see, his criticism of Carter’s presidency mirrors in important respects what many pundits are now saying about Obama, particular in light of recent events, most notably the failure – so far – to intervene in Libya and the decision to keep open the Guantanamo Bay prison – the infamous international symbol of his predecessor’s War on Terror.  What happened to hope and change?  That disappointment is captured in today’s New York Times column by David Brooks.  He writes: “The campaign of 2008 was marked by soaring calls for transformation. Now the administration spends much of its time reacting to events and counseling restraint.”  Brooks finds this all the more troubling because it seems so at odds with the leadership style – one he likens to JFK’s “seize the moment” approach – that Obama embraced during his first months in office.  Now, Brooks complains, Obama seems more like Eisenhower – a prudent, cautious president.

“On Friday” Brooks writes, “President Obama gave a press conference that perfectly captured his current phase. He acknowledged rising gas prices but had no new energy policy to announce. On Libya, he emphasized the need to deliberate carefully our steps ahead but had no road map to propose. On the federal budget fight, he spoke passionately about the need to reach a compromise. But when given the chance to talk about what it might look like, he rose above the fray and vaguely counseled balance and moderation.”

Brooks concludes – shades of Fallows! – “Now I’d say his worrying flaw is passivity. I have no confidence that I can predict what sort of person Obama will be as he runs for re-election in 2012.”

Brooks’ uncertainty regarding what kind of leadership to expect from Obama echoes the frustration felt by many – particularly those on the Left who most strongly supported the President during the 2008 election.  In almost every respect – from keeping Gitmo open to the use of military commissions to try suspected terrorists to expanding the troop presence in Afghanistan he has adopted or extended tactics developed by his predecessor for the War on Terror.  Domestically it is much the same – most recently Obama signed on to an extension of the Bush tax cuts, after promising to end them for  high income earners, and he is actively seeking budget cuts to reduce the deficit.  And when he has pushed major policy innovations – health care reform (a sop to the insurance industry!), the job stimulus bill (too small to make an impact!) – they have fallen far short of what many consider to be “real change”.

For Brooks and many others, Obama’s “prudent” leadership style is not just disappointing – it is also surprising.  But it shouldn’t be.  In December, 2008, I posted a comment titled “Obama the Centrist” that criticized the Left’s surprise with Obama’s initial appointments, which they deemed too moderate.

My response was that, in fact, this was precisely what we should expect from Obama.  Rather than change, his pre-presidential political career demonstrated a lawyer’s concern for proceeding cautiously, for splitting differences and building consensus.  He was a process-oriented leader, not a visionary.  Rather than a fixed set of convictions, his policy choices would reflect a weaving together of options put forward by others.  I concluded: “So we probably shouldn’t be surprised that his initial appointments seem to emphasize competence and continuity more than progressive change.  Indeed, the real surprise would have been if he veered away from the style that proved so successful in his political life to date.”

More than two years later I have seen nothing that would lead me to change that assessment. Indeed, when my students ask me what has proved so surprising about Obama’s presidency, I invariably reply “The most surprising aspect is just how unsurprising it has been.”  He has governed almost precisely as one should have expected him to.  What has changed in the intervening two years is not Obama’s leadership style or his vision of government – it is our own yardstick of evaluation.   Traits that once seemed appealing – his calm demeanor, his pragmatism, his intellectualism – are now viewed by many former supporters as character defects; Obama possesses no vision! He is overly intellectual! He lacks emotion! He is – gulp! – a passive president!  The very qualities that appeared so appealing on the campaign trail, particularly in contrast to his predecessor’s seemingly impulsive, emotion-driven decisiveness, are now viewed as weaknesses.

We should not be surprised by this. Obama won election largely by telling us what he was not.  It allowed us to impute beliefs and a leadership style to him that likely never existed.  This is not unusual – in fact, it is the same dynamic that informed Fallows’ critique of Carter more than three decades ago.  And it says more about our ability to infuse a president with our own vision of what he will do in office than it does about any realistic assessment of what he can hope to accomplish.

Brooks may be uncertain regarding the type of leadership we can expect from Obama from here on out.  But I am not.  He will lead as he always has: by splitting differences, proceeding cautiously, reacting to events rather than provoking them and choosing policies from a menu largely written by others. It is a leadership style that many find reassuring. Others deem it disappointing.  No one, however, should find it surprising.


  1. It shouldn’t be a shock that Brooks is disappointed in Obama. He’s a Republican.

  2. Zach – You can do better than that – dismissing an argument because of who made it is not what we taught you! What about the substance of his claim – that the dynamic JKF-like Obama of the first few months has given way to a more – dare I say it – passionless president? As you well know, this criticism is more prevalent on the Left than on the Right (those on the Right aren’t disappointed – they never believed in the first place). I don’t really care what people think of Brooks – what do they think about the merits of his argument?

  3. Do you think that Neustadt would agree or disagree with you on this one? I ask that because I’m reminded by his story about how Eisenhower was able to change his professional reputation and leadership style between 1957 and 1959. Neustadt describes Eisenhower as being viewed in 1957 as ineffective and indecisive, lacking consistency and direction with his program, and having disagreement in his administration. But due to Eisenhower’s own personal effort towards changing and building his professional reputation, he was able to change this perception within two years, such that in 1959 he was regarded as tenacious and unequivocal. Might Obama be able to do the same, if he feels that such a transformation is necessary for his own political survival? Or is Obama’s case different enough from Eisenhower’s, due to his difference in personality and background and the environment that he finds himself in, that such a scenario is unlikely?

  4. Stanis – That’s a great question. If I gave the impression that I believe a president’s leadership “style” is immutable, I gave the wrong impression. But when we consider Eisenhower’s second-term transformation, as described by Neustadt in his Presidential Power, we must also keep in mind that the transformation to the new Eisenhower he describes is based in part on what some scholars believe to be a faulty caricature of the “old” Eisenhower. In later editions of Presidential Power, Neustadt adjusts his initial description of Eisenhower in light of new scholarship based on recently released documents. So there may be less to Eisenhower’s transformation than meets the eye.

    Having said that, I don’t mean to suggest that Obama cannot change his leadership style (nor that he should). My point was that, in contradistinction to Brooks’ column, I don’t think he’s changed his leadership style as yet and thus I am neither surprised by his current “prudent” approach nor would I predict it to change in the future. That doesn’t mean it won’t change. But if you were Neustadt circa 1957, would you have predicted the “new” Eisenhower – the more tenacious, unyielding Eisenhower that burnished his professional reputation by defending his 1960 budget in a way that he did not in 1958? I think not, but then, I don’t believe in hope and change – I believe in evidence.

  5. Thought provoking piece. This quote particularly resonated:
    “It soon became clear, in ways I shall explain, that he and those closest to him took office in profound ignorance of their jobs. They were ignorant of the possibilities and the most likely pitfalls. They fell prey to predictable dangers and squandered precious time.” It clearly applies to the current Administration. Also leaving positions on the Federal Reserve Board vacant for many months was a dreadful error.

  6. Obama’s unwillingness to stir passion was evident during the campaign as his popularity lapsed after his minister’s radical beliefs were publicized. But his lack of passion stems from his evaluations of the core interests he will protect. Labor is not a core interest, finance and the pentagon are. The rejuvenation of the Democrats may occur around education and unions in Wisconsin. Labor’s cause is helped by Diane Ravitch’s “The Death and Life of the Great American School System” which puts the testing mania into history’s ashcan.

    But Obama’s constant references to Lincoln are balanced by his silence on FDR — a marker for your left wingedness. Obama could never say “It is a simple fact that the average of the wage scale of the nation has gone down in the past four years more rapidly than the cost of living. It is essential, as a matter of national justice, that the national wage scale should be brought back to meet the cost of living, and that this process should begin now and not later.” He said this during the 100 days and addressing the national Chamber of Commerce.

    Had Obama believed this he would not have allowed the bailout to be limited to Wall Street and he would not have allowed the Democrats to support it and the Republicans to oppose it. This tactical error reflects his limited political calculations. By saddling the Dems with the burden of bailing out the rich while neglecting the middle class, he gave the GOP hope.

  7. He ran on one word: change. You can’t run on CHANGE and then expect supporters to be happy with “splitting differences, proceeding cautiously, reacting to events rather than provoking them and choosing policies from a menu largely written by others”. It’s bait-and-switch, and that is simply immoral (and illegal in most states for commercial enterprises to do).

  8. I’m sure Matt is absolutely delighted with the number of readers who clearly have not yet figured out which President this piece is addressing.

  9. Of course I wouldn’t dismiss the whole argument because of its source. That was merely my first reaction on finishing the post – that it was silly to draw parallels based on David Brooks, who as far as I can see makes a living by being disappointed. Not that he doesn’t make a decent point from time to time.

    Obama, by his nature, doesn’t seem to be a very “passionate” guy. But he does seem to have a far better grasp of how Congress works than Carter did, and faces a bungling field of potential challengers, so I don’t see the analogy holding. We’ll see how the Libyan situation and the budget negotiations conclude. Both are potential minefields for Obama but could also give him a lot of leverage if he succeeds.

  10. Zach – I’m not sure the analogy holds either. And you may be right that Obama has a far better grasp of Congress than did Carter, although the empirical evidence on this is sketchy at this point. But if you think the charge of a passionless president is a meme from the Right, think again. Both Tom Friedman, in yesterday’s NY Times column and Ruth Marcus, in her WaPo “Where’s Waldo?” column from a couple weeks back, level essentially the same charge as Brooks. Both writers, as you know, hail from the port side of the opinion ship of state. Indeed, as I’ve discussed elsewhere, this is more a concern of the Left than the Right simply because it’s the Left that believes he’s not doing enough. Regarding Marcus’ column, see:

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